Truth, Social Justice, and the American Way[i]
I am a HUGE fan of comic book heroes. I am especially a fan of good superhero movies. After watching a good movie based on a comic book superhero, I often enter into long discourses on a myriad of topics brought forth from the move. Today’s topic: three things comic book hero movies help us understand about the work of social justice.[ii] Whether heroes focus on the needs of one particular community, an entire country, the world, or the entire universe, the goal of the hero is to work for justice. And while the goal is often to fight one particular villain, villains are often personification of larger social problems. Therefore, superhero movies have a lot to say about the work of social justice.
Origins and Context: The Call Meets You Where You Are
Superheroes get their superpower in many different ways. Some are born and raised into a situation (like Wonder Woman). Some get their powers by mystical means (Black Panther). Many are the result of a freak accident (Spider-Man, The Flash). And others use their intellect and/or training to create advantages (Iron Man, Batman). But at some point in every superhero origin story, a decision must be made: Do I use my gifts to benefit myself or do I use my gifts for a bigger purpose? The hero chooses the bigger purpose. As the hero thinks about what the bigger purpose is, they also take into account another major portion of their origin story—their context.
There are several iterations of heroes on different earths within the multiverse. The most recent pop depiction of this is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse where we see different people[iii] with different eras, races, nationalities, and gender, all with similar but distinct origin stories and powers. They are all results of a bite from a radioactive spider, but their manifestation of that power fits their particular context. Same origin, similar skills, but slightly different powers to match their slightly different contexts. The goal, then, of the newest Spiderman is not to learn how to be just like to the others. Miles Morales must learn to grow into his own gifts – gifts the others do not have – and to express himself through a different costume, different powers, and a different attitude. He must live into his own context. Those who work for social justice are also created and called for their contextual reality. So, their work may look similar to others that work for justice, but like the newest Spider-Man, one has to be attentive to their particular call, their particular gifts, and their particular context.
Villains Dehumanize, Heroes See the Value in All Life
It is easy to think of villains as simply evil, but the best villains are a lot more complicated. Thanos[iv] is concerned about over using the earth’s resources, a result that would eventually lead to decimation of the environment and all life. Killmonger[v] contests the isolationist policies of the nation of Wakanda and argues that such a policy is unjust because it causes Wakanda to sit idly by as other suffer, even though the Wakandans have the means to help. These are both noble positions with which those that fight for justice may sympathize. It is not having an evil goal that makes each of these into villains, but rather choosing an evil way of achieving that goal, one that has little regard for human life. Even when they have a good point, the villains force humans to take a back seat to the villain’s ideology. Villains are dehumanizing.
The role of those interested in justice is to re-humanize. Heroes recognize that all lives are of value—even the lives of villains. They will kill the villain if they must, but usually do not want to and often don’t. The villain is not seen as just pure evil, and the struggle is more often about thwarting the villain than about destroying the villain. Those concerned with eco-justice share Thanos’ concerns but will also fight for the lives that live on the earth (or any other planet where life exists. For the hero and for those concerned with social justice, one is concerned about issues because they are fighting for life and the dignity of one’s life. Prison reform is needed because there are people’s lives that are unjustly ruined. Isolationist policies are problematic because nations with power should do what they can to save lives through various forms of humanitarian aid. For the hero, issues are tied to life, if life ever becomes secondary or a non-factor, that’s when one enters villain territory.
Take Heart, For You are Not Alone
In the movie Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), when Peter’s best friend, Ned, learns that Peter is Spider-Man, he asks, “Can I be your guy in the chair?” Ned realized instantly that every hero needs back up, and he basically said to Peter, Can I have your back? The public never knows the name of “the guy in the chair”, the one who sees the bigger picture and is able to guide the superhero past obstacles that hero can’t see. The person in the chair is the behind-the-scenes partner that every hero needs. The person in the chair also knows both the public persona and private identity of the hero, so they can be someone who can provide the hero a place of solace when the constant fighting against never-ending villains threatens to overwhelm.
Sometime the fight is so big that it cannot be fought alone, so you get your other superhero friends. Ensemble hero movies are my favorite. Each Avenger is powerful in and of themselves, but they are so much more powerful together. It is helpful to be reminded that there are others that are fighting this fight with you – whether they are those on the front lines with you working for justice or those that know the you that no one else knows. One can take heart they are not on this fight for justice on their own.
[i] This title is a play off of Superman’s catchphrase, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
[ii] For this blog post, I am focusing on those that are widely considered heroes and not on those that can be called vigilantes or anti-heroes. We can learn from them too, but their complexity requires attention (Maybe I will write about them in the sequel.)
[iii] An alternate Peter Parker, Spider-Gwen, the Noir Spider – even a comic Spider-Pig
[iv] The overarching villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly the Avengers films. Thanos is the Mad Titan who seeks the power of the Infinity Stones to eliminate a precise 50% of all living things.
[v] The antagonist of Black Panther (2018).
Dr. Annie Lockhart-Gilroy is a womanist pedagogue and practical theologian who writes and teaches on emancipatory pedagogies and the spiritual formation of youth. She is Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to numerous articles, and posts, she is the author of the forthcoming Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth. To find out more, visit www.lockhartgilroy.com.